Politico

Biden, Xi discuss need to avoid conflict amid global competition


President Joe Biden told Chinese leader Xi Jinping late Thursday that the United States wants to “responsibly manage the competition” between the two countries, in hopes of avoiding conflict.

The two leaders held their second call since Biden took office at a time when Washington and Beijing are increasingly at odds on issues ranging from cybersecurity to trade, and the White House stressed that the discussion was about high-level themes. A senior Biden administration official said the call lasted around 90 minutes, and that the tone was candid and familiar. Both Biden and especially Xi referred to their past personal interactions, the official said.

“The two leaders had a broad, strategic discussion in which they discussed areas where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values, and perspectives diverge. They agreed to engage on both sets of issues openly and straightforwardly,” the White House said in a readout of the call. “The two leaders discussed the responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”

The senior Biden administration official told reporters that Biden pursued the conversation with Xi after it became clear that lower-level talks between U.S. and Chinese officials were failing to achieve breakthroughs on key issues. A leader-level discussion seemed necessary. During the call, the pair also discussed their ability to have private talks, the administration official said.

Chinese officials with whom U.S. representatives have engaged often stick solely to talking points, use harsh language or break diplomatic protocol, the senior Biden administration official said. The Chinese officials also sometimes try to link cooperation on important issues — such as battling pandemics or climate change — to areas where the two countries are at odds, such as human rights.

At times it has appeared that the Chinese officials’ performances are more for domestic political consumption, but it has meant little progress on key areas, the Biden administration official said.

“We don’t believe that is how responsible nations act, especially given the global importance of U.S.-China competition,” the Biden administration official said.

While largely avoiding specifics, the Biden administration official indicated that those areas of discussion where the U.S. wants to see more progress include cybersecurity, China’s disputed maritime claims, its oppression of Muslim minorities and potentially the future of its nuclear program.

The two leaders discussed economic issues, the senior Biden administration official said, but Xi did not make a specific ask of Biden, such as requesting he lift U.S. tariffs.

Above all, however, the goal of the call was to convey that Biden has a complex, non-binary view of the U.S.-Chinese relationship.

Biden has repeatedly said the United States will compete with China but that he wants to make sure that competition doesn’t lead to conflict. At the same time, Biden believes it’s possible to compete with China while also cooperating with it on certain areas of mutual interest.

It’s not clear that Chinese officials get that Biden wants to compete and cooperate at the same time, the senior administration official said, one reason Biden decided to talk to Xi. Xi has centralized so much power in China that a leader-level call may have been the best way to take the relationship with the United States forward.

Biden wanted to lay out some guardrails for the relationship to avoid conflict, including maintaining open lines of communication, having substantive and honest discussions and avoiding linking issues.

The Biden administration anticipates that at some point the U.S. president will meet with Xi, possibly on sidelines of a major multilateral gathering in the coming months.

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